It was the most wonderful Easter Triduum which left me in a state of holy peace, joy and exhaustion. Only the latter passed quickly. I was immensely privileged to spend it at the Abbey of St Cecilia on the Isle of Wight, a community of Benedictine nuns. I have written previously of the intensely peaceful and prayerful spirit of this place, of the beauty of their liturgy. To write about it feels like trying to describe a beautiful work of art. One may analyse the parts that make up the composite, but in so doing you do no justice to the impression that the whole makes upon you. To come into contact with this place brings a deep joy and peace, and an inexpressible sense of having drunk deeply from a source whose purity has been so carefully guarded and preserved.
It is not merely that there is an ascetical beauty to the place, an order and simplicity gracing everything the sisters do, nor even that the liturgy is beautiful, the chant sublime; for helpful though these things are, they are no use unless they point beyond themselves. Nor can it be a sociological reality: save for a short interview with the Abbess and a few words surrounding the rubrics of the Holy Week ceremonies with some of the other sisters, there is almost no social contact during my stay, for the sisters’ lives are of strict enclosure; and yet I feel a deep sense of connection with the spirit of the place. As one of the sisters once beautifully explained it: “We sensed that we love the same things.” We are engaged for those sacred days in a common task that involves a true communion. I am drawn into their habitual Opus Dei, to the worship of God to which their lives are ordered. This is why the stream feels so refreshing and wholesome. I would urge any young woman who is thinking about a vocation to contemplative life to visit.
Quite why it was that in such a setting the dictum of St Francis came to my mind – preach the Gospel, and if you must, use words – I cannot say. Perhaps it was because I have always struggled for words to preach on the greatest feasts of the Church’s year.
This may in part be to do with a desire to say something appropriately deep, which easily becomes alloyed to a kind of conceit that one must say something original. It may also be due to the fact that at the greatest feasts of the year one has less time than ever to prepare a sermon. And it may be none of the above; it may just be that the mystery is too great for words.
Whatever it was, this year Providence brought St Francis’s phrase back to me, but as one to be viewed in a new light, as the turns of a kaleidoscope rearrange the same shapes to form new patterns. It suddenly occurred to me that when one quotes St Francis’s advice, the mind inevitably jumps to the idea of some kind of activism. One thinks of the Good Samaritan, or the dishonest steward, and fondly imagines that by helping the poor or downtrodden or showing mercy and forgiving debts one has exhausted the demands of the Gospel. Admirable though these things are, they are not the Gospel. Any virtuous pagan can subscribe to them.
What is at the heart of the Christian Gospel is actually the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ. If Christ is not risen, our faith is in vain. To preach the Gospel I must witness to Jesus’s Lordship over every aspect of human history and destiny, to Jesus as the Alpha and Omega of the life of man. How can I do this effectively, if I do not acknowledge that this is first and most urgently true of my history and destiny?
As I surveyed the choir of cloistered nuns before me on Easter Sunday morning, I realised that you preach the Gospel of the Resurrection without using words by doing as these good sisters and thousands like them have done, by allowing your life to become hidden with Christ in God. Far more radical in the true sense of that word than any gesture towards others, and far more demanding, is to hand yourself over to the Lord and His will by vowing poverty, chastity and obedience. This is the true imitation of Christ and, therefore, the heart of the Gospel, in which a life thus lived tells the story of how true joy and fulfilment lie on the other side of the Cross.
Pastor Iuventus is a priest in London
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (17/4/15).
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